There was something almost too neat about the arson attempt at the mosque in Yasuf on Friday morning. The nearby settlement of Kfar Tapuach, the graffiti in Hebrew, the choice of target. The Palestinians certainly had no trouble pointing out who they thought were the culprits. It was their neighbours, they said, who have been harassing them, they claim, for years.
But a week has gone by and the police and Shin Bet security service have yet to arrest any suspects.
“It is not just a matter of one or a handful of extreme settlements,” said one security official. “There is a much larger group of people who are potentially involved in this kind of activity.”
“Prepare for a price tag”, read the message left by the unknown arsonists on the mosque walls. Over the last year, the phrase has come to be associated with the more extreme elements among the settlers.
They have been trying to link their conflict with the government and the military over the future of the outposts and settlements with reprisals against the Palestinian population.
The threat is twofold. For the last two years, Israeli governments have been trying to create a situation whereby the Palestinians, even without holding negotiations, get to handle most of their internal affairs, including, to an increasing degree, their own security. By attacking fields, olive groves and mosques, the extreme settlers are forcing the security forces to go back into the Palestinian areas and try and stop them.
Since many Palestinians also see the IDF as the settlers’ protectors, there is also great potential for violence, even a third intifada, to break out once again — putting on hold, so the extreme settlers hope, any more pullbacks.
The Shin Bet estimate that at present there are dozens of Israelis in the West Bank who are prepared to carry out violent attacks against Palestinians in order to ruin any chances for more settlement dismantling. At least another 1,000 Israelis support these actions actively, though they would not take part in them themselves.
The main concern is that while for many, the mosque seems like the most drastic step, for the “price tag” mob it is only a first step. The next few weeks could be a very sensitive period.
Even as some of the settlers are doing everything they can to block the government’s decision to freeze building in the West Bank, including by violent means, a prisoner deal with Hamas, which would mean the return of many terror operatives to the West Bank, is close. These elements could combine to create an explosive situation. All it takes is one victory procession in a Palestinian village to welcome the returning heroes, and one carload of settlers intent on ruining the festivities.
That would cost all sides much more than a price tag.